President Obama has taken deliberate and high-profile initiatives to mend U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world. In the first months of his presidency, he welcomed Jordan’s King Abdullah II to Washington, where he endorsed the “two-state” solution to the Israel-Palestine issue—a proposal long favored by the Arab states. He met with Saudi King Abdullah in London during the G20 Summit, causing a media stir when he bowed to the king, as is customary and respectful with royalty.
Most importantly, he delivered a major address in April to the parliament in Turkey, declaring that “the United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam.” But he went even further, recognizing the richness and influence of Islam, and promising that the U.S. would listen, even when it did not agree:
“I also want to be clear that America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. We will listen carefully, we will bridge misunderstandings, and we will seek common ground. We will be respectful, even when we do not agree. We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world -- including in my own country. The United States has been enriched by Muslim Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their families or have lived in a Muslim-majority country -- I know, because I am one of them.”
This is an extraordinary and important passage, in numerous ways, and encapsulates much of the new orientation and policies of the Obama administration, and not just toward the Arab world. First of all, it is diminishing the centrality in U.S. policy of the war on terrorism—which has so distorted American policies, priorities and values.
Secondly, the speech emphasizes “broader engagement” with the Muslim world, which is both necessary and inevitable, given the size—over one billion—and growing influence of the global Muslim population. The President’s approach to Islam is not just tolerant, but respectful and appreciative of the faith, which has done so much to “shape the world” and which, Obama could have added, has much in common with both Christianity and Judaism.
The President emphasized his intent to listen to others, even when there is disagreement. This fits in with his frequent references to the importance of a great power to recognize past errors, to temper hubris, and to approach other peoples with humility. Such a change from the previous administration could hardly be more dramatic, and has been noted around the world. The Egyptian Foreign Minister said that “Obama’s speech is the first and significant step for easing the tension between the Muslim world and the United States.”
Finally, the President’s personal touch at the end of that passage sent an important signal, both to the global community and to his own citizens, that we are all part of one human community. It was a risky political statement, for it would antagonize and alienate some Americans. But it was also a courageous one—identifying himself with what some consider to be the enemy—and calling on his compatriots for tolerance and understanding.